Researchers Probe Stereotype: Christians And Science Don't Get Along
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There is some new research that is reminding us of the power of suggestion. My colleague Steve Inskeep spoke to NPR's Shankar Vedantam about this.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: It's research showing how people believe differently when they believe that other people hold a stereotype about who they are or what they're like. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has been looking into this research. Hi, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: What's the research?
VEDANTAM: Well, it's about an idea known as stereotype threat, Steve, and we've actually talked about this in the past. The idea of stereotype threat is that when there's a stereotype in the air about you, you are worried that your behavior might end up proving the stereotype true, and it adversely affects your performance.
INSKEEP: Your anxiety might actually make you more like the stereotype in some ways.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. Turns out you don't even have to remind people about the stereotype. You just have to remind people about the context in which the stereotype is activated for stereotype threat to kick in.
INSKEEP: Oh, and that causes anxiety that might make you perform differently or act differently in your life.
VEDANTAM: That's right. And sometimes just being reminded of the context is enough to trigger a stereotype threat. Studies find, for example, that if you ask kids to write down if they are male or female before taking a math test, girls will often perform worse than if you hadn't reminded them about their gender. So merely reminding children about gender unconsciously activates the stereotype that girls might be worse than boys at math, and this can affect the performance of girls.
INSKEEP: And now you've got some research that says something else about stereotypes, right?
VEDANTAM: That's right, Steve. Most of the work on stereotype threat has looked at minorities and other underrepresented groups. This research looks at a majority group - American Christians - and it looks at a stereotype about American Christians - that Christians and science don't get along. We often see headlines in the news that say creationism and evolution are in conflict. And many people have a stereotype that there's something about Christianity and science that don't mix. I was speaking with Kimberly Rios at Ohio University, and she told me that she noticed something on a recent trip to Morocco. When she talked to people there about religion and science, she found that Moroccans had a very different concept than the one in the United States when it came to Christianity and science.
KIMBERLY RIOS: In Islam, which is the predominant religion in Morocco, they don't seem to have this conception that Americans do about Christianity - or religion, in general - and science about these two bodies of thought being incompatible. And when I talked to people in Morocco about this notion, that surprised them.
VEDANTAM: So Kimberly Rios and her colleague Azim Shariff, Steve, along with their grad students - they started thinking - what's the effect of the stereotype that Christians in the United States have a problem with science? And they asked - is it possible that stereotype threat, this time applied to a majority group - American Christians - might stereotype threat explain data that shows that Christians are often outperformed in science by non-Christians?
INSKEEP: OK. What did the research find, then?
VEDANTAM: Well, she conducted a survey and a series of experiments. And she found that many non-Christians in fact do think that Christians aren't good or aren't interested in science, so there is a stereotype about Christians having problems with science. She then ran an experiment with Christians and non-Christians volunteers who were asked to solve problems of logic. Christian volunteers reminded about the stereotype that Christianity and science don't mix did worse than Christian volunteers who weren't reminded of the stereotype. This, of course, is classic stereotype threat. She also found that when she gave volunteers a test, Christians did worse when she labeled the test as a test of scientific ability, rather than a test of intuitive ability, even though the test was exactly the same, presumably because labeling it as a test of scientific ability triggers stereotype threat just like the girls asked to list their sex before taking a math test.
RIOS: Those who thought the test was about scientific reasoning - for those people, there was a difference between Christians and non-Christians. But for those who thought the test was about intuitive thought, there was no difference.
INSKEEP: Wow. So you have evidence there that having the stereotype in your mind makes you anxious in some way, affects your performance. And this is the key - the most troubling part, Shankar - you're telling me that, again and again, people who are reminded of a stereotype about themselves end up behaving in ways that conform to the stereotype.
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. And it seems paradoxical because the people don't necessarily need to believe the stereotype themselves. It's just the fear that other people might believe the stereotype and your behavior might confirm the stereotype that makes you question your own behavior and impedes your performance.
INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam, who regularly joins us to talk about social science research and also explores the science of stereotype threat and many other ideas on his podcast Hidden Brain.
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